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To hold an unconference sounds like a contradiction. In fact, it’s practical anarchy applied to a discussion meeting. A participant was quoted in the Guardian in September 2007 as saying that unconferences are “coffee breaks that last all day”. Putting it more formally, an unconference has an open-ended agenda in which the topics discussed are driven by the participants, who are all encouraged to contribute. As the writer of the Guardian article described it, “You join an informal group on a particular theme that interests you, listen, discuss and then, if you find something boring, move on to another group.” In Podcasting for Profit (2007), Allan Hunkin notes another feature: “What makes the unconference model different from a conference is that attendees don’t pay to register, speakers aren’t paid to speak, and expenses are covered by sponsors.” The term is originally from the US and goes back a long way. The first example I know of appeared, appropriately, in a list of anarchist summer events on Usenet in April 1993. It has remained a niche term until recently, but is becoming more common, especially in the computing and IT worlds.

So how does an unconference work? It’s designed to perpetuate the buzz arising during the traditional breaks for coffee, lunch and tea when people communicate informally.

Guardian, 18 Sep. 2007

There is no set program for BarCamp Orlando, which is billed as an “unconference” because of its loose structure. The agenda will be determined the day of the event by those who post on a sign-up board at the door, notes co-organizer Larry Diehl, 20, an information-systems student at UCF.

Orlando Sentinel, 11 Sep. 2007

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Oct. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 6 October 2007.